Day Two: "Who Was Your Favorite Player Growing Up?"
Part Two of a Three-Part Series
All of us had a favorite player when we were growing up. It is as natural to a young kid as Carl Yastrzemski's batting stance was unnatural. In Part One, our man Yaz took home MFP (Most Favored Player) honors, capturing the hearts of three of the ten respondents. Although his batting average among yesterday's guests was better than his .285 lifetime average, it's more the exception than the norm that numbers play a big part of who we choose as our favorite player.
Yesterday's article drew nearly 200 responses from readers at The Baseball Think Factory's Baseball Primer discussion. In addition, it was the inspiration behind a column written by Fred Claire, who is also one of today's guests, and published at MLB.com and Sportsticker Baseball Notebook at Yahoo! Sports.
The following questions were asked of each of our participants in the three-part series:
1. Who was your favorite player when you were growing up?
3. What do you most remember about that player?
4. Did you ever come into contact with him?
5. Do you have any special memorabilia (baseball card, autograph, etc.)?
As was the case in Part One, the cast of star-studded respondents will be provided in alphabetical order. With that, it's now time to listen to our guests as they stroll down memory lane.
Claire, Executive Vice-President and General Manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers (1969 until 1998): "My favorite player as a youngster was Vern Stephens, shortstop for the Red Sox. I think I became a Red Sox fan because my brother Doug was a big fan of the Cardinals and Stan Musial. I started following the Red Sox in the late 1940s because they could match up with the Cardinals and Ted Williams was a match for Musial. But it was Stephens who soon caught my attention and became my favorite player. He was a shortstop with power; and big time power.
"I never had a chance to see Stephens play and didn't make my way to Fenway Park until 1968 when I joined the Long Beach newspaper. Your father was covering the Dodgers at the time. When we went to Boston on that first series we were met by two or three days of rain, but I took a walk to Fenway and saw Bobby Doerr entering the park. All of the Red Sox of the late 1940's and early 1950's were great with Doerr, Johnny Pesky, Dom DiMaggio, Al Zarillia, Williams, Walt Dropo, Mel Parnell, Ellis Kinder, Williams, etc. . .but it was Stephens who was my favorite.
"I never met Stephens but I was working the desk at the Long Beach paper one night when word arrived that Vern had passed away. I was assigned the task of writing his obituary. I have no special memorabilia of Vern Stephens but memories of a favorite player as a youngster growing up in Jamestown, Ohio. I later wrote a column about the Red Sox and received a nice message from a member of Vern's family. When we love baseball, many paths seem to cross."
Jon Daly, Baseball Think Factory: "Carl Yazstremski. I discovered baseball in 1975. My dad was a Red Sox fan and Yaz was still the name player on that team. Plus he was Polish (I am 75% Polish.)
"Yastrzemski was already legendary among Sox fans by the time I caught up with him. I think the fact that he was almost as old as my Dad and still playing stuck in my head." Jon never came into contact with his favorite player admits to "sadly" not having any special memorabilia of Yaz. "My brother won an autographed ball for guessing the date of either his 3000th hit or 400th home run, but I don't know what happened to it."
Walt Davis, Baseball Think Factory: "Don Kessinger. That great dash into the hole, jump, spin, throw move. Plus I couldn't hit either, so I liked the defensive players."
The reason Walt liked Kessinger so much is the same he gave in response to what he remembers most of his favorite player. Davis never met the Chicago shortstop and doesn't claim to have a piece of memorabilia that stands out.
"I'm sure I had his baseball card at one point but have never been into autographs and such and the cards are long gone now. My only remaining piece of memorabilia is the game ticket and pin from Barry Bonds's 600th HR game (boy did I take a trip to SF on the right day). Of course with all this 'roids stuff, they're probably worthless now."
Sean Forman, Baseball-Reference.com: "Wade Boggs and Rickey Henderson. I loved trying to get on base by any means necessary and I also loved the havoc that Henderson made on the bases.
Sean remembers "Rickey's stance and all the doubles Boggs hit" more than anything else. He never came into contact with either player, "but I was at the game where Henderson walked and scored a run. I wished that he had stolen a base, so I could say that I saw the walks, stolen bases, and runs scored record all be set on the same day."
Peter Gammons, ESPN: "My favorite player was Jackie Jensen. I think it was because he was so good in every manner playing for a bad Red Sox team in the fifties. He could hit, hit for power, was a great baserunner (former Cal running back), played right field almost as well as Dwight Evans, and in an eight-year period led the league in RBIs. Unfortunately, I never met him before he died, young. I had baseball cards, but nothing special from him.
"My other favorite was Herb Score, Sandy Koufax before his time. Even though I was righthanded, I would emulate his delivery for hours against a wall. Yes, I was listening the night he got hit in the eye, and my house was on Score watch for days. Naturally, I did get to know him as a broadcaster for the Indians, ever the gentleman. In 1991, I asked Ted Williams to name the best lefthanded pitcher he ever faced. 'Herb Score,' he answered."
Brian Gunn, Redbird Nation: "John Tudor. Because he was the only guy on the field who looked like he was getting as knotted-up about the outcome of the game as I was."
What Gunn remembers most about Tudor was "during Game 7 of the 1985 Series, Tudor had just gotten hammered for five runs and would eventually end up the game's losing pitcher. He stormed into the clubhouse, punched an electric fan, sliced open his hand, and had to be taken to the hospital. It was a sad end to an otherwise great season in which he went 20-1 with a 1.37 ERA and 10 shutouts after June 1st. Those shutouts were something else -- the most in baseball by any pitcher since Bob Gibson in '68. It was really a sight to behold -- game after game he'd get that big loopy changeup over for strikes.
"I also vividly remember Tudor's performances against the Mets that year. He had a 0.93 ERA in six starts against the Cards' arch rivals, including two games down the stretch where he gave up no runs in 10 innings. The first one was in Shea, won by Tudor and the Cardinals, 1-0 over Dwight Gooden. The next was in Busch, won by the Mets when Darryl Strawberry hit a gargantuan laser off the stadium scoreboard in the 11th inning -- a blast so ferocious that it stopped the clock at 10:44.
"I heard him on KMOX radio last year during the broadcast of a Cardinals game, and he sounded as pleasant as could be. Part of me wanted him to be more like J.D. Salinger -- a cypher living in the woods of New Hampshire, burdened by Calvinist guilt or something."
What about a piece of special memorabilia? "I've got his Topps baseball card from 1985 right next to my desk."
You've got to love that. So simple, yet so special.
Jay Jaffe, Futility Infielder: "Fernando Valenzuela. Fernando came up as a chunky, mysterious 19-year-old (or so they said) reliever who spoke no English. In the heat of a tight race, he pitched 17 2/3 innings without allowing an earned run, a portend of things to come the next year, when he was just phenomenal, with five shutouts and only four runs allowed in his first eight starts, all complete games.
"That look skyward at the top of his pitching motion is what I remember most about Valenzuela, that infectious smile, the gritty 150-something pitch complete game in the '81 Series, and of course, Fernandomania!"
Jaffe never met Valenzuela but "wrote Ron Cey a letter as a classroom project in '81. I did get to take a picture of Fernando at Spring Training '89. I've got several cards of them all, but it's Fernando who takes the memorabilia prize and probably the overall crown as well. I have his bobblehead and this past winter I bought a customized Dodger jersey with his name and #34 on it. I did get it in my size, so there's no need to put on the extra pounds to fill it out.
"During his rookie season, I had a scrapbook of sorts for Fernando. I cut out the box scores and taped them into a notebook, adding up his cumulative stats. I'm not sure I made it through the whole season doing that, and haven't seen the thing in over 20 years."
Bill James, Senior Baseball Operations Advisor of the Boston Red Sox: "Well, it changes from time to time. My son Reuben, who is 11, has gone through Mark McGwire, Mike Sweeney and Juan Pierre before settling on Manny Ramirez. But my best answer is Minnie Minoso.
"Minnie played the game with vast enthusiasm and a childish disregard for caution. Ball bounced away from the catcher with Minnie on third, Minnie was coming home. He might be out, he might be safe, but he wasn't staying on third and watching. . .
Asked what Bill remembers most about Minoso, "Well, gosh. . .among a million things, I remember discovering that he was really good. I 'adopted' him based on his smile and his headlong manner. It was later, when I got into baseball cards, that I realized that he was actually good."
Did you ever come into contact with him? A one-word answer does the trick. "Nope." Special memorabilia? "I have a lot of junk."
Jonah Keri, Baseball Prospectus: "Tim Raines. Just a bundle of energy, generated excitement every time he made contact and starting flying out of the box, and every time he took a big lead off first.
"I remember, on a general level, his amazing speed. But more than that, the fact that he never got caught. If he got on base in the late innings with the Expos down one, you knew you'd soon have a runner in scoring position. You knew.
"As for specific memories, the game that stands out for me is this one. Because of collusion, Raines couldn't get a sniff on the free agent market. So he became the rare elite player forced to sit out the first month of the season. His first game back, May 2, 1987, he put on one of the most dominating performances I've ever seen. In six trips up he reached base five times, with a walk, two singles, a triple and a home run. The home run? A game-winning GRAND SLAM in the 10th inning off Jesse Orosco to win it 11-7. I was 12 years old at the time, and just remember jumping around my grandparents' living room, where I watched so many games growing up. I still remember that game vividly.
Jonah hasn't met Raines. "Although I became a sports writer of sorts -- including a brief stint in the sports department of the local paper (Montreal Gazette), I never covered the Expos in an official capacity. Actually I did one time, in an exhibition game in Washington, D.C. vs. the Cardinals, but I mostly just hung out in the press box and sneered at Bill Collins and the rest of the cold-hearted bastards who wanted to move the team to the D.C. area, out of Montreal.
"Never been a huge memorabilia guy, so nothing that stands out. My biggest souvenirs are literally souvenirs -- the memories of all the great games I was lucky enough to see over all those years in Montreal."
Mitchel Lichtman, Special Consultant to the St. Louis Cardinals: "Rusty Staub. I was a huge Met fan. He seemed like a regular kind of guy and smart and he was a good hitter of course. It was also unusual to see a red-headed baseball player for some reason.
"I loved to play baseball when I was a kid and I had (unrealistic of course) dreams of being a big-leaguer. Even though I was a pretty good athlete and baseball player, I couldn't relate to most of the "jock types." Staub was someone I could relate to. He didn't look like the classic ballplayer, with his red hair and cherubic, freckly face. Like I said, he appeared to be a cerebral player, which gave me something else to relate to. Plus, my mother has red hair!
Doug Miller, MLB.com: "Dave Winfield. I was a big Yankee fan growing up. I admired his athleticism, his hustle, and his big right-handed swing. He hit the ball harder than anyone I've ever seen, ran like a gazelle, and made one of the greatest catches ever against Doug DeCinces.
"I don't know what ever happened to him. I vaguely recall that he opened up a restaurant a long time ago. Other than that, although he seemed like he could be manager material, after he retired, I never heard a thing about him. If I recall correctly, he was a pretty darn good hitter, at least for a while in his career, although I never have looked at his career stats with my now highly trained and skilled sabermetric eye!"
"I met him at the winter meetings in Anaheim last year. I shook his hand and told him I was his biggest fan in New York. He seemed pretty cool with that despite all the crap Steinbrenner gave him when he was there.
Eric Neel, ESPN Page 2: "Davey Lopes. He wasn't part of the Dodgers' big four (Garvey, Cey, Baker, and Smith), which was cool with me because I've always been more interested in the so-called "minor" figures in any drama. I liked that he did a little of everything well. I loved that he stole bases (right up until he was 40 years old). He didn't say much and he wasn't spectacular, but he had pop, in his bat, in his feet, in the way he bounced up off the dirt after fielding a ball.
"I never got an autograph from him directly, but a buddy of mine saw him years ago in Washington D.C. at the Capitol Building and had Winfield sign a D.C. map for me. I still have that. I have a bunch of his cards, too."
"I don't know why you like a guy, really. Some of it's performance and circumstance (he had good years when I was 10 and my baseball head and heart were really coming alive then), and some of it's a feeling. I had a feeling for him, that's all I can tell you."
Regarding what Eric remembers most about Lopes, "You mean after the mustache? Give me Game One of the 1978 Series, when he hit two out and drove in five.
"I never met Davey as a kid, but I did get to talk with him while working on a Khalil Greene story last spring. He was funny and gracious, I was a giggling, awestruck kid. It was perfect." As far as special memorabilia goes, "I've got my eye on a retro jersey even as we speak."
Retro jerseys, Retrosheet, and don't forget, Rico Retrocelli.
Rob Neyer, ESPN: "Depends on what you mean by growing up, I guess. But until I was ten or eleven, my favorite player was Rod Carew.
"I spent a few of my childhood years in Minnesota and North Dakota. I didn't care much about the Twins, probably because they weren't all that good. But Carew was one of the more famous players in the game, so it was easy to latch onto him.
"I remember reading an article about him, in which he talked about using some sort of weird tobacco/gum combination to make sure his right eye stayed wide open."
Rob has never come into contact with his boyhood idol. "When I was eight or nine, though, I did send him a letter asking for an autograph, and some months later I did receive a signed photo (though if actually signed by Carew, I don't have the slightest idea). I still have that photo, somewhere.
"I have a few things, collected over the years even though I don't really think of myself as a collector (yeah, they all say that). There's only one thing I really care about, though: a late-1940s National League baseball, signed by Stan Musial and Whitey Kurowski for my grandfather during a hospital visit. If my house is burning up, I grab my computer and my Stan Musial ball."
Jeff Peek, Traverse City (Michigan) Record-Eagle: "The defensive side of baseball obviously caught my eye more than the offensive side because my favorite player growing up as a Tigers fan in the 1970s was Aurelio Rodriguez. I loved his name, loved the old beat-up black glove he used for years, loved his bazooka arm -- and always wished (hoped? prayed?) that he would hit a little better.
"I remember when my dad bought me my first Tiger yearbook in 1972, there was a black and white photo inside of Rodriguez and his new bride, Maria. I didn't want to rip the page out, so I used an old instamatic camera and took a picture of that picture, and taped it to the wall beside my bed. Years later, in 1999, I covered the final game at Tiger Stadium, and Rodriguez was one of the ex-players who came back for the affair. I sought out Rodriguez, who attended the game with his teenage son. I told him I used to keep his wedding photo beside my bed. Speaking over the laughter of his son, I asked him, 'Is Maria still beautiful?' I thought his son was going to pass out. Aurelio said he couldn't wait to get home and tell Maria that she had a fan (or a stalker).
"That was the last time I ever saw him. Less than a year later, while he was in Detroit for a memorabilia show, Rodriguez was struck by a car and killed while walking with a friend. I remember seeing the bulletin come across the Associated Press wire and feeling like I'd just lost a family member.
"About eight years ago, I won an auction for a cracked bat that Rodriguez used as member of the Yankees late in his career. I eventually sent it away to a memoriabilia show where Rodriguiez was a guest, and he signed it for me. When the bat came back I noticed a difference in the way Rodriguez wrote the "A" in his first name -- from a rounded "A" in the autograph he sent when I was a kid, to a pointed "A" on the bat. I asked him about that when I met him at Tiger Stadium, and he said he couldn't remember when his signature changed -- but he seemed impressed that I even noticed. As I was leaving he gave me his address and asked me to drop him a line sometime. I felt like a kid again. Unfortunately, the only time I used that address was to send condolences to Maria.
"I've heard (and repeated) many times that you don't want to meet your heroes bacause they will disappoint you. But I won't ever forget the day I met Aurelio Rodriguez. To many baseball fans, he is just another name in the Baseball Encyclopedia, but he will always be a legend to me."
And isn't that what a favorite player is all about?
Dayn Perry, FOXSports.com: "Ozzie Smith. On the pitching end, probably John Tudor, but Ozzie overall. When I was young, my favorite thing to see was a spectacular defensive play. Ozzie, of course, made those by the bushel. He was slightly built, too, which somehow made him seem more human to me.
"The backflips before each game, which, for me, set the tone as 'let's have some fun today.' His left-handed home run off Niedenfuer in the Game 5 of the '85 NLCS was, for me, probably the happiest moment of an otherwise miserable 7th grade year. We also once took in a stray cat, and I named her after him.
"Never had the honor of meeting him, although I did once eat at his largely forgettable restaurant in suburban St. Louis.
"I have a few of his Topps cards, and I have an 8x12 glossy of him that they gave out before a Cardinal game one time. I insisted that my mom frame it for me, and it still hangs on the wall in my room back home."
David Pinto, Baseball Musings: "Probably Thurman Munson. When I started watching the Yankees in 1969, they weren't very good. Munson came up at the end of that season and showed the promise to be another great Yankees catcher and lead the team back to championships.
"I liked the way he blocked the plate, especailly compared to Carlton Fisk. Munson would use his whole body to take on runners trying to score. Fisk would stick his leg out and get it broken.
"When we played strat-o-matic with the 1979 cards, we had a special rule that allowed Munson to die. I had him on my team anyway, and I still have his 1979 strat-o-matic card."
Not even death do us part.
Tomorrow (Part Three): Joe Posnanski, Ron Rapoport, Tracy Ringolsby, Ken Rosenthal, Christian Ruzich, Alan Schwarz, Joe Sheehan, Bill Simmons, Bryan Smith, Studes, TangoTiger, Tom Verducci, Darren Viola, and Jon Weisman.
[Additional reader comments and retorts at Baseball Primer.]